Apps Are Making It Easier To Cheat — And Get Caught

Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
"I just thought it was the most sinister development ever," Michelle Cottle says of learning that the makers of the Call And Text Eraser (CATE) app were now marketing it to both cheaters and the cheated. Cottle investigated the issue for The Atlantic's November technology issue, which was published online this week. Her piece, "The Adultery Arms Race," explores how new technology — and especially apps — is making infidelity easier and more accessible. But, those who've been cheated on can also use these tools to digitally catch their partners in the act. Below, we followed up with Cottle to get a better idea of how these tools are changing relationships.
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Are these tools actually making people less honest, or do they just make it easier to act that way?
"There’s not a ton of people researching this yet, but the general consensus is that it’s not going to make somebody who’s not inclined to cheat do it just because it’s that much more available. But, if you already have that inclination, it does make it so much easier to hook up. Like [when using] Grindr and Tinder, you don’t have to dress up and go out to a bar to find somebody. It’s much more efficient.
"Now, they're finding a big generational split in terms of how people react to others poking around in their virtual life. Younger people tend to take it much more seriously, which I think everybody would find weird, because they assume that kids are just sharing everything. But, for younger people, that’s as much a real part of their life as if you were searching through your grandmother’s purse. So, I think we’re going to see this develop as the completely wired generation comes up through the ranks. But, right now, it’s so new that people just have anecdotal evidence. Therapists say they have people spying more on their spouses. It will be interesting to see how this changes for the twentysomethings, because they live so much more in that world than their parents do."
What kind of privacy issues do these apps bring up? And, at what point does this become an invasion of privacy?
"If it’s a legal question, it very quickly becomes an invasion of privacy, but the law hasn’t quite decided how it wants to play that. For people who find out their partner is cheating and decide they want to take it to divorce court [as proof of infidelity], it’s very tricky, because the law is not equipped to deal with this. And, various circuit courts have ruled in different ways on questions of spying on your spouse virtually. [You can] talk to private investigators and read all these law journals, and you can try your best to get your mind around what is exactly legal, and you may be still be wrong. This is a brave new frontier."
Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Many would say that trust is a pretty necessary element for a relationship's long-term success. Should you trust someone who’s using one of these tools?
"One of the interesting things I learned from the therapists I talked to is that they draw a bright line between somebody who is spying on their spouse for no reason, or for a power trip, and somebody who's spying on their spouse because they found some evidence, or they have that gut feeling that something is wrong.
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"If you find something like Ashley Madison on your spouse’s phone, you know there’s a problem. At that point, the counselors are kind of like, 'You have eroded trust to the point where you’re going to have to do something dramatic.' But, in some cases, couples use these tools to try to reestablish trust if they decide they want to move forward. The cheated-on will track their partner if they get paranoid, and [the cheater will say], 'Fine, you can do this, and I won’t pitch a fit.' But, yes, if you have reached the point where you are finding yourself spying on your partner or they have these tools on their phone, you are in a really bad place. You shouldn’t be optimistic that things are going to turn around unless you work really hard at it."
Are we actually seeing trust erode, or are our relationships simply changing and evolving with the increasingly digital times?
"The cover story for the November issue of The Atlantic is about teens sexting and just how differently they view that than older people do. I do think it’s just a completely different mindset as to what’s appropriate and what constitutes a violation. As far as the erosion of trust, I talked to one guy who was just like, 'I assume everyone is spying on everyone. The NSA is spying on me. Aren’t we all just in each others' business?' But, when I talked to [the people who run] Illicit Encounters, they said what they’re worried about is not somebody’s wife cracking their software, but rather someone hacking in, stealing their information, and then blackmailing all of their clients. That’s what keeps them up at night. I just think there is, on some level, a different sense of who’s watching."
For the couples in your piece, finding out that their partner was cheating wasn't necessarily the end. What is it that determines whether or not a relationship breaks up or is actually strengthened by the use of these tools?
"I talked to both counselors and couples about this, and what seems to be vital is what has always been vital: A willingness to come clean and be honest about what has happened. I met people who were trying to reconcile, but their spouse wouldn’t really tell them what happened. One in particular — you could tell he wanted to be a good guy, but he was more mad that he got caught than that [he was cheating]. So, I do think [the solution is] what it has always been: You have to make a decision to be honest so that the cheated-on spouse’s questioning mind can stop churning, and then you have to find a way to reestablish trust. And, some couples are trying to use technology to do that, which makes total sense. We’re trying to use technology to do everything these days."
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